Saturday, October 03, 2009

Market halls

I was casually browsing Nothing To See Here just now, and found this wonderful account of Sheffield's Castle Market, due for demolition, which will probably be gone before I get to set foot in that legendary city. There are dozens of photos, and every one worth a look. Looking at them, I feel I just must visit, before it disappears. There is something so poignant about the decay of 1950s and 60s optimism which places like this represent.

And yet, according to the NTSH account, it is not by any means all decay and decline. Certainly there is a distinct lack of modern glitz, the superficial flim-flam of the 21st century. But the market is well used, apparently, particularly so in the recession - but by the poor and the working class - not the sort of people any local authority wants as part of the image of a world class city which they are all meant to aspire to now. What the fuck does 'world class' mean, anyway? I don't know; no one knows, but they all want to be it.

I love market halls. Brought up a southerner, I knew nothing of them. The Queensgate Market in Huddersfield was my introduction to the species - a radical construction of concrete parabolas which achieved listed status while I was there in the teeth of those who believe that anything concrete should be pulled down or blown up ASAP. And what a place it was - everything you could possibly desire under one roof, from continental delicatessen to oversized thermal undergarments; from broken biscuits to old fashioned hardware (and enamel teapots, of course), from Nehru jackets to coffee in the Tudor style coffee shop with genuine polystyrene oak beams; each packed into a tiny open fronted retail unit. Where else would I have got a giant sink plunger for Andante's toilet; a hot steak slice for 74p, yards of cotton lace, and those rubber spouts you put on the taps...

The very beauty of these places is their utilitarian nature; their lack of image. They're there to sell you stuff you need, not to persuade you into wanting stuff you don't with oh-so-tasteful displays of twigs, pot pourri scents and Farrow and Ball green paint. They don't need to be fashionable or trendy, because they serve a purpose and provide a genuine service. Ironically, when many of them were built in the brave new world of the 50s and 60s they were cutting edge, the modern alternative to outdoor markets and Victorian buildings, But the fact that they haven't evolved since then speaks volumes about what we must now call their 'fitness for purpose'. But is the fact that they work enough? Can such a phenomenon survive in a world where more than ever style is elevated over substance, and nothing exists unless it has a 'brand' and an image?

Some people say the north of England is better than the south because the people are friendlier, or because the scenery is better. Both are likely true. But if you asked me the one thing that makes the north great, it's market halls.


Nev Wells said...


A very passionate post which I enjoyed reading. Being a child of the 60's and gaining the benefit of all things available in the open and covered markets in Derby I enjoyed being reminded of the purpose of these markets. I was in Leeds today seeing my son in Uni and we visited the fantastic market they have, complete with competing fruit sellers and sweet shops all using mechanical tills !

The Leeds market is a beautiful building from the inside and out.


Mark said...

For some reason, market places all over the world have lasted so well. Whether it is the market halls of the Zuma in Antananrivo or Leadenhall Market in the City or the old market in Halifax.....most have lasted, beyond all the odds.

But you are right - this obsession with 'world class' in anything poses a significant threat to olde buildings. Many buildings have been lost in London comparatively recently simply because they cannot 'handle' the IT cabling. ironically, now, a lot of the cabling is unnecessary as many networks are being converted to wireless. I understand that the older buildings also cost - usually - less to heat and less to cool.

Dr Duct said...

Yes, there is something very good about practically all markets - I'm with Mark on this one. I love the Halifax Victoriana, and Huddersfield's sweeping optimism.
Can you go so far as to 'get' the 'old' Portsmouth Tricorn Centre?
For me it teeters between horrific and fantastically, purely, beautiful. But it really did end up looking like 'Broken Dreams'.
I know: I should get out more!

S said...

Yes, I nearly mentioned the Tricorn Centre! I used to drive past it when I worked in Portsmouth, and followed the process of its demolition. I used to dream about it. Everything, once it is about to be demolished, acquires a certain nobility. I should have mentioned also that Kirkless Council are - despite its Grade II listed status - about to give themselves permission to butcher the Queensgate Market, removing a number of the concrete parabolas and replacing them with fibreglass lookalikes, to banish the market upstairs where it will die, and fill the ground floor with retail units. Follow the link in the post to the 20th Century Society website.

S said...

Kirklees, sorry. I can spell, honest.